The mechanic sat down next to me and presented the sheet detailing the work to be performed on my vehicle. Because I needed to authorize the repairs, and by extension the king’s ransom the work required, I pretended to examine this sheet. For all I understood about what the man was saying, however, I might as well have been mentally reviewing a long-ago game of Donkey Kong.
If I were being honest, I would have said, “Sir, you’re describing something I could never hope to understand. I’m going to do my best to look distressed so you’ll take pity on me and charge a fair price for the work, but I’m completely at your mercy, and in the end I’m going to agree to whatever it is you suggest.”
In turn, if the mechanic were being honest, he would have said, “I understand the situation. I know you don’t have the foggiest notion of what I’m talking about, and I know that you know that I know. I’ll charge you whatever I please, and then when I’m done I’ll pretend to knock a little off the top as if I’m doing you a favor. But in truth, you’ll never really know the extent to which you’re being screwed.”
Fair enough, my good man.
My problem at the auto shop was twofold: First, I’m a car idiot, which is entirely my fault. With more than (or “over,” as I can now say with the full blessing of the Associated Press) forty years on this planet, I’ve had plenty of time to educate myself on the inner workings of one of the most important machines in my life. So that’s on me.
The second issue, though, is trust. There are good mechanics and bad mechanics, honest ones and dishonest ones. The mechanic working on my car seemed like a nice guy, but when you’re scratching to make ends meet, feelings of distrust have a way of asserting themselves.
Trust, too, is just as much a consideration when editing a job for a client. The client is, after all, placing something in my hands that’s every bit as precious to him or her as the sleekest car. When clients entrust you with their work, they’re handing over their baby, and you better believe they can be fussy as hell about it. And they have a right to be.
Money in the bank is greatly appreciated. It can be used to pay for things like, well, car repairs. But earning the trust of a client is also a form of payment, and it’s a deeply satisfying one.
Now that I think about it, editing a manuscript isn’t all that different from working on a vehicle. I can take a manuscript into my garage and put the hood up and listen to the sound of the engine. I can gauge whether it runs smoothly, corners nicely, or if it sputters and fails.
I can emerge from the garage and look the client in the eye and perhaps see the same level of apprehension I felt at the mechanic’s when I say, “I gotta tell ya, we need to do some serious work here.”
I’d wipe the grease off my hands with a rag and continue, “That knocking you heard in your manuscript? It’s a combination of dangling participles, noun-pronoun antecedent issues, comma splices. Your punctuation’s out of whack. You’ve got some serious usage issues. Yes, sir, I’m going to have to take those paragraphs completely apart and put ’em all back together again. We’re talking a full week in the shop.”
In reality, when taking on freelance work, I’m more likely to undercharge clients than to overcharge them. I enjoy editing and I enjoy helping others, probably in part because I’ve always had low self-esteem. But that’s another issue entirely.
The real issue is trust, and in a good writer-editor relationship, the writer trusts the editor to bring out the best in his or her manuscript, to be strong in his opinions, and to respect the writer’s right to disagree. And when the work is done, the best feeling in the world is seeing the writer continue his journey with a manuscript that purrs like a kitten.